Confronting the challenge of change

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A recent change to the UD campus is Cardinal Farrell Hall, which opened its doors in February 2018. Photo by Patrick Goodman.

Since my freshman year, I’ve seen conversations about tradition and change take center stage on our campus.  These conversations are healthy and necessary; however, our dialogue on tradition and change is far too often presented as a caustic, binary debate between those who treasure tradition and those who seek to leave it in the dust.

Although we should all oppose change pursued merely for its own sake, thoughtful improvements that build upon our bedrock of tradition must be seen not as extraneous change, but rather as healthy and rightly-ordered growth.

Tradition is unquestionably our guiding light here at UD.  

The role of tradition at UD goes far beyond particular, beloved events, such as Groundhog and Constitution Day. The synthesis of our intellectual and social traditions not only gives us an occasion for thankfulness, but also a shining beacon that guides us forward.

Our shared tradition is our shared foundation. Our university’s growth must build upon the legacy of tradition that makes this community so special. To this end, we must necessarily eschew this zero-sum mentality that pits tradition against change.

The evening of Feb. 28, Dr. Charles Sullivan of the history department joined around 60 students in Madonna Hall to help kick off a campus-wide conversation on growth and tradition.

He pointed out that many novel technologies that we take for granted, such as our cell phones and easy internet access, came about through transformational, innovative and inherently disruptive changes.

Our generation must face farther-reaching and more dramatic changes such as gene-editing, artificial intelligence and widely-implemented robotic technology. Addressing these radical changes is a challenge we must face and embrace together.

During our discussion of the relationship between tradition and growth, Sullivan clarified that the goal of his talk was neither to proclaim that change is bad nor to advocate that we must gather for a last stand as, in the words of Sullivan, our “Alamo of Tradition.”

Sullivan posited that a lot of change is actually good, as is most markedly exhibited by incredible advances in healthcare. He then posed a couple of questions to the group:

How can we combine tradition with growth, and how might that same tradition be essential for growth in this world of ever-accelerating change?

There is a way, Sullivan said, to “think about tradition in the mode of Nietzsche’s ‘monumental history,’ as something to faithfully retrieve and lovingly preserve.”

However, Sullivan also argued that tradition might more usefully “be thought of less as a piety and more as a provocation, a provocation that should unsettle a dogmatism of self-possession.”

Our mentality regarding tradition must be more inclusive than exclusive, for “when we are willing to encounter the otherness of tradition or to imagine the possibility of cultural alternatives … we equip ourselves to navigate change.”

Sullivan also warned against caricaturing change as simply an abstract force; indeed, our moral, spiritual and practical education at UD empowers us to better understand and influence the process of change, which we must neither passively accept nor reflexively resist.

“Change, then, may be something that, in part, will happen to us, but we are also agents and actors who can shape these changes,” Sullivan said.  

Here at UD, we are a very theologically-minded community. Despite this, Sullivan warned students against seeking out “magisterial authority” at the expense of cultivating “Catholic community.”

In an era of disruptive and rapid change, theological precepts may only be cultivated in a nurturing, principled and welcoming community. Within a time of rapid change, there is no more important resource to us than a welcoming and principled community, founded in tradition.

For our community, the legacy of tradition and our future of growth must never be mutually exclusive.

When change seems to surround us, we must not circle the wagons around our Alamo. Instead, we are called to bravely face the future with the spirit of crusaders.

Properly seen, our tradition is a bedrock for the right kind of change, not a bulwark against all change.

Growing as a campus community and as a nation facing an imminent national election requires that we value both our own traditions and the enduring significance of “tradition” more broadly,  as an enduring foundation upon which we are all called to work toward a better future.

“If we think about tradition carefully, it and it alone is the only ground on which we can grow,”  Sullivan concluded.

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